This is not a war, and it is also not the third occupation of the Gaza Strip by Israeli troops - the other two being in 1956 and after the Six-Day War in 1967. The headlines and slogans are excessive and superfluous. To the soldier in an engagement and the commander in battle it makes no difference - the risks are the same. But on a national level, it is best to be precise. Operation Cast Lead is a brigade-size raid, with an accompanying air and naval component. No more, no less - certainly not as long as there is no decision on whether to attach the reservist units being called up to the Gaza Division, or to use them as replacements for conscript units.
A raid means a military incursion similar in size to the operations in Karameh in Jordan in 1968 and Litani in Lebanon a decade later. For the time being, and hopefully until its completion, this operation is significantly more economical in terms of Israelis injured: In each of the other two operations, 30 soldiers were killed, in addition to those missing and imprisoned.
During the past few years, the Israel Defense Forces has carried out four major operations: the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in 2005; the campaign in Lebanon in 2006 (which took place in parallel with Operation Southern Shalit in the Gaza Strip, following the abduction of Gilad Shalit); the air strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2008; and Cast Lead. You can also add Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 to this list.
For Defensive Shield, five divisions were used, four in the evacuation of the Gaza Strip (two military and two police), and in Lebanon four. The difference in these operations depends very much on circumstances. A conscript force, be it a ground or an air unit, which is constantly in the field and has the necessary intelligence, planning and clear rules of engagement, will always be more efficient than reservists rushed to the fight with insufficient training.
At the root of the IDF's success in evacuating the Gaza settlements rapidly, assertively and without losses lay the willingness to quickly use disproportional force. This approach was also adopted in September 2005 in response to a barrage of Qassam rockets Hamas unleashed after an incident at the Jabalya refugee camp.
However, several months later, the Olmert-Peretz government abandoned the offensive approach. The decision to also deploy artillery against rocket attacks was quickly canceled following the disaster that befell the Ghalia family on a Gaza beach. One of the girls in the family, Ilham Ghalia, who was hospitalized in Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital, told a story that was different from what Palestinian propaganda would have us believe: Her father caused the lethal explosion when he handled an unexploded ordnance left behind from a previous incident.
Decision makers in the government and IDF for some reason shelved her admission, which relieved Israel of blame. This anemic attitude contributed to the failure to prevent the attack on Kerem Shalom and the abduction of Gilad Shalit.
After the violent takeover by Hamas of the Gaza Strip, Israel tried methods that had already failed in Iraq, Iran and everywhere else: sanctions. The distress in the Gaza Strip was major, but bearable. The hiatus in the fighting was exploited to import long-range rockets. Had Hamas managed to contain itself and extend the cease-fire a few more months, the next shipments - according to the staff of Defense Minister Ehud Barak - would have been able to target Tel Aviv. The end of the cease-fire created unique conditions that are not likely to repeat themselves, in the form of American, European and even Arab agreement for an aerial and ground offensive in Gaza, despite the hundreds of Palestinian casualties.
As in past assassination campaigns (Shehadeh, Yassin, Rantisi), the IDF and Shin Bet security service are trying to target the extremists in order to assist the moderates. The catch is that in the current operation, both the moderates and extremists (everything is relative) are members of Hamas.
The strike on the neighborhood housing the battalion commanders was not only meant to make command and control of resistance to a ground offensive difficult, but also to bolster those more sensible in the three centers of Hamas power - Gaza, the West Bank and Damascus - who recognize that the organization risks losing all it has.
The challenge for Israel is to create an Arab and international envelope around Gaza, free of Hamas' rockets, and restore to it the Palestinian Authority in the form of Mahmoud Abbas or Salam Fayyad. This may require new elections in the PA, and this time only the parties willing to recognize the existence of Israel and the validity of the Oslo Accords will be allowed to participate. Bringing Hamas face to face with such a reality will be the true success of Operation Cast Lead.
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